A few observations on the performances of various candidates in the first Republican-primary presidential debate, last night in Cleveland:
‐Carly Fiorina was the clear winner of the early debate, maybe even the whole night. She was elegant and eloquent, and her answers were concisely accurate and disciplined. Her closing statement was a master class in how to take on Hillary Clinton. She will undoubtedly rise in the polls in the next few weeks and should be on the main stage for the next debate.
‐Only minutes into the debate, Donald Trump might have knocked himself out of front-runner status by refusing to promise allegiance to the Republican party and by not committing to not running third party. And for that, he should be knocked out. His gamesmanship will not play well. Even Trump supporters know that if Trump runs third party, he will lose, Republicans will lose, and Hillary Clinton will win. That said, for the remainder of the debate he was the usual Trump and landed some good jabs on immigration and the defense of his business record.
‐Governor Chris Christie came away as the toughest fighter on the stage last night. He was forceful and unequivocal and reminded viewers of the qualities that endeared him to Republicans early on in his political career. His exchange with Senator Rand Paul over the NSA and national security was arguably the most memorable moment of the night and will give Christie momentum into the next debate.
‐Before last night’s debate, Senator Marco Rubio had been languishing in the polls. He needed a strong performance and he delivered one. His opening and closing statements were vintage Rubio, drawing eloquently on his moving personal story and mounting a stinging critique of Hillary Clinton’s record. His support of the Gang of Eight immigration bill has been his one glaring weakness to conservatives, but he made an able defense of his views on immigration. Rubio should rise back to the top of the pack after last night’s performance.
‐Governor Jeb Bush appeared cautious and nervous throughout the night, as if he wanted to leave the debate unscathed rather than make a memorable impression. He ably defended his conservative governing record in Florida as well as his support of Common Core. However, if he wants to win over some skeptical conservatives he will need more fire and more punch in future debates.
‐Governor Scott Walker was “aggressively normal,” as he described himself at the end of the debate. His record, résumé, and conservative bona fides are second to none, but it was evident that he may lack the flare of a Senator Rubio or Governor Christie to distinguish himself in these crowded debates formats.
Governor John Kasich helped himself a lot last night. He came across as an appealing, compassionate, yet tough-spined Republican with an unquestionably great record.
‐Ben Carson emerged from the debate as the most likable person on stage. He was funny, self-deprecating, and demonstrated that he is an estimable man deeply rooted in his faith and convictions. His answer about race relations and his closing statement about his unique accomplishments — being the only candidate on stage to separate Siamese twins — were two of the highlights of the evening.
‐Senator Rand Paul did not have a good night. From the start of the debate he appeared antagonistic and almost desperate, attacking Trump at the outset and later getting caught in a bad exchange with Governor Christie. His campaign has done yeoman’s work taking his message to areas largely untouched by many Republicans — e.g., the inner city of Detroit — and he should have emphasized that, rather than get trapped in squabbles with other candidates.
‐Senator Ted Cruz appeared competent, smart, and exact in his responses, but his personality didn’t seem to win over the audience. Cruz needs to distinguish himself in the crowded field, and it didn’t appear that he did so last night.
‐Governor John Kasich helped himself a lot last night. He did have the benefit of the home-field crowd, but he came across as a different type of Republican — an appealing, compassionate, yet tough-spined Republican with an unquestionably great record. His embrace of Medicaid conflicts with the party line, but he defends his move ably and proudly, which, in the end, may endear more voters to him.
Reflecting on the debate as a whole, we would say that it was a good night for the Republican party and a good start to the primary season. If one thing in particular stood out, it’s that the GOP has the largest field of impressive and serious candidates in recent memory. We surely can’t say the same about the Democrats. Senator Rubio said it best last night: “Let me say I think God has blessed us. He has blessed the Republican party with some very good candidates. The Democrats can’t even find one.”